Monterey Peninsula College works with feds to help vets on the edge.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Jeanne OBrien remembers the whirring of the helicopter taking off beside her, then the plank of plywood hitting the back of her head and slamming her forehead into an ammo can. That’s when her memory goes blank.
“The only reason I know what happened is because my squadron sergeant saw the whole thing,” says OBrien, who was airlifted out of Afghanistan in October 2007, eight months after deploying as a U.S. Army specialist.
Now, she’s wheelchair-bound, has crippling migraines and nerve damage, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, preventing her from working. She and her fiancé, Chris Paynter, who’s also her full-time caregiver, are living on just over $3,000 a month from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
OBrien, a student at Monterey Peninsula College, is overwhelmed by the workload and stimulation. But she can’t cut back on classes: Recent changes to the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which provides veterans with a monthly education stipend, now require her to be full-time to get the highest level of benefits. The bill also no longer distributes “break pay” to vets in the months they’re not in school.
That means more stress on OBrien’s body, more day-long treks to the V.A. clinic in Palo Alto, and a tighter budget for the couple, who lived in a friend’s garage to avoid sleeping on the streets.
“It’s hard to ask for help,” OBrien says. She’s grateful to the mental health counselors at MPC: “They can be a mediator between me and my tutors, who don’t all understand what I’ve been through.”
One of those counselors is Bill Leone, who’s seen an increasing number of homeless and even suicidal young vets.
“I saw a Navy vet yesterday who was one V.A. check away from being on the street,” Leone says.
He adds he’s worked with 10 homeless veterans: “When classes are over, they go live in the woods.”
Today, 13 percent of the county’s homeless people are veterans, up from 9 percent in 2009, according to the Monterey County Homeless Census. And the V.A.’s Suicide Prevention Program reports that 950 vets receiving V.A. services attempt suicide per month.
In coordination with MPC’s Health Services office, Leone is working to raise awareness and connect the school’s 902 vets to V.A. services and local agencies.
He has an ally in Fred Macrae, the suicide prevention coordinator at the Palo Alto V.A. clinic. Macrae is planning to train MPC counselors and students in the V.A.’s approach to high-risk vets. “We help them think through who could they really open up to, and remind them of their reasons to live,” Macrae says.
Congressman Sam Farr (D-Carmel), a member of the House Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, says plans are progressing for a V.A./Department of Defense health care clinic for vets and active military, to be built on the former Fort Ord.